Defined as “the quality of being thankful, gratitude embodies readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.”1 Being genuinely grateful comes from a deeper emotional place than the practice of merely showing proper socially-appropriate etiquette by saying, “thank you.” Throughout history, the idea of “gratitude” was typically associated with religious or spiritual philosophy. For example, the Roman philosopher, Cicero said of gratitude that it is “not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.” The philosophy of gratitude remains a hallmark of Western philosophy, as well as a hallmark of Judeo-Christian/Abrahamic faith. 2
Gratitude is a social skill that can improve relationships at home, work, and in everyday encounters. Research also suggests that being grateful leads to improved psychological and physical health. Gratitude has been shown to increase relationship security in domestic partnerships 3, and can increase feelings of engagement and satisfaction in the workplace. In fact, the positive effects of gratitude can be physically seen on brain imaging. Areas of the brain associated with emotional regulation and mental calmness were more active when participants were instructed in a gratitude meditation. 4
Gratitude and Psychological Health
Intuitively, it makes sense that leading a grateful existence would result in a more optimistic and fulfilling life, but research is showing that exhibiting a grateful predisposition can have psychological health benefits. In a 2010 review, researchers even identified “gratitude” as a significant characteristic for determining a person’s overall well-being. 5 In a study of mental health patients receiving psychotherapy, those who were given writing assignments expressing gratitude reported a significant improvement in symptoms over those who were assigned basic journaling exercises about their feelings. 6
The practice of gratitude has been inversely related to a number of mental health disorders, and gratitude-based therapies have resulted in better body image 7, less relationship anxiety 8, and in particular fewer symptoms of depression. Several studies especially show a direct link between feeling grateful and feeling less depressed. This is likely due to the associations between gratitude and having a positive outlook and life satisfaction and exhibited a more positive mood. 9
Individuals diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may experience feelings of depression, anxiety, and even panic as the result of a traumatic event. These symptoms can persist for years afterward, even when there is no longer any danger. 10 In one particularly well-designed study investigating the relationship between gratitude and PTSD symptoms, it was determined that those individuals who rated higher on a gratitude questionnaire had fewer depressive episodes than those who scored lower. 11
Gratitude and Physical Health
Perhaps connected to the beneficial impacts of gratitude on mental and emotional health, and as a continuation from the discussion above, there appear to be benefits related to physical health as well. While the literature is somewhat limited regarding the practice of gratitude on physical health, some promising studies do exist. For example, individuals with chronic illnesses, such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) and arthritis, have notoriously high rates of depression due to the long-term, unrelenting, and often debilitating pain they experience on a day-to-day basis. In fact, the inflammatory process itself, that is usually considered a physical issue seems to be a causative factor in developing depression. 12 In one study investigating these groups, it was determined that those who rated higher on a gratitude questionnaire experienced significantly less depression and reported less physical pain.
Expressing gratitude is good for the heart, both literally and figuratively! Research, as limited as it is, does suggest a correlation between positive psychological attributes, such as gratitude, with improved outcomes in cardiac patients. 13 In addition, subjects participating in a gratitude meditation exhibited a significantly reduced heart rate over those instructed to elicit negative, resentful thoughts in themselves. 14
How to Cultivate an Attitude of Gratitude
Some practical tips on how to increase your gratitude include:
- Start each day thinking about three things for which you are grateful. It doesn’t have to be big. It could be your warm cup of coffee, soft fuzzy slippers on your feet, or the view from your kitchen window.
- Giving thanks before meals, even if you’re not religious. Be grateful for the farmer who grew the food, the grocery store that sold it, and the person who prepared the meal.
- Keep a gratitude journal. Each night before bed, write down anything that occurred during the day for which you are thankful.
- Write thank you notes to others.
- Think about anyone in your life who has touched or inspired you.
The wonderful thing about gratitude is that is can be cultivated through mindfulness and practice, so anyone can develop an attitude of gratitude and significantly improve their mental, emotional and physical health. 15